Emesto Londono and Thomas Erdbrink – Washington Post February 23, 2011
Iranian officials on Tuesday hailed the passage of two warships through Egypt’s Suez Canal as a milestone in Iran’s effort to play a greater role in maritime affairs.
Israeli officials called it a worrisome provocation at a time of upheaval and deepening tension in the Middle East.
The Alvand frigate, one of the oldest vessels in the Iranian navy’s five-ship fleet, became the first Iranian warship to sail into the Mediterranean since the 1979 Islamic revolution. The frigate, built in 1968 and in dire need of repairs, is en route to the Syrian port of Latakia for a training mission and is accompanied by a supply ship.
The Iranian navy last year deployed its newest destroyer, the Jamaran, to fight Somali pirates operating in the Arabian Sea. Another recent mission took the destroyer to Sri Lanka.
Brig. Gen. Abdolrahim Mousavi, the deputy commander of Iran’s military, was quoted by the country’s official Islamic Republic News Agency as saying that the Suez transit had succeeded “by the grace of God” and describing Israeli officials’ concerns as “negative propaganda.”
Israel’s vice prime minister, Silvan Shalom, said the timing of the crossing was an unmistakable message from Iran that it is attempting to expand its influence in the region.
“The objective is to signal to the leaders of the Arab world who the new leader is in the Middle East,” Shalom said.
Shalom’s remarks were the latest in a string of condemnations by Israeli officials, who have been monitoring the ships’ movements.
Israel and the United States have accused Iran and Syria of providing support to Hezbollah, a Lebanese militant group that fought a war with Israel in 2006.
Israeli warships have traversed the Suez Canal for missions in the Red Sea. In July 2009, Israeli defense officials revealed that a submarine had moved through the canal the previous month as part of a naval drill. The disclosure was seen as a warning to Iran.
The U.S. Navy sends roughly a dozen ships through the Suez Canal each month, according to a recent report by the Congressional Research Service.